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What's in a (Business) Name?

People often stress about picking a business name, especially if they are new to doing business. On the one hand, that's not unreasonable. On the other hand, you really shouldn't overthink it at this stage.

First, An Anecdote

I worked at Aflac for a few years. I've never personally tripped across an official telling of this story anywhere, though I have tried to tell it on various blogs (probably all redacted) and in forum comments.

Aflac's actual name is American Family Life Assurance Company. Aflac is really an acronym for their legal name.

So it's sort of like going by your initials or a nickname. Everyone knows Bill is short for William, so no one acts like you are trying to fool people or deceive them if you introduce yourself as Bill and go by that name socially, even though your bank account says William

They were originally incorporated under the name American Family Life Insurance Company. According to stories I heard internally while I worked there, they changed it because some other company in another state had the same name and the issue was settled with "a gentleman's coin toss" which Aflac lost.

They considered changing their name again at a later date for marketing purposes, but opted to go with the acronym instead. As an insurance company, they have to be registed in all fifty states and possibly a few other places where they do business, like Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands. This is a whole lot of paperwork and they decided it wasn't worth it.

If they hadn't lost that bet and hadn't decided to just go with the acronym, they would have never had their wildly successful duck commercials. The duck came about because they hired marketers to create a marketing campaign and the people they hired thought "The name sounds like a duck quacking."

They had low name recognition for the insurance industry. They created two test commercials, one more conservative and one with the duck idea. In tests, the conservative commercial got them up to the industry standard of about 40 percent name recognition (if I recall correctly) and the duck commercial got them up to 90 percent.

The CEO decided to go with the riskier duck commercial, which made fun of their name and of their lack of name recongition. This made them a household name.

And it started with losing a gentleman's coin toss, otherwise their acronym would be Aflic, not Aflac, and the duck campaign would have never happened.

Now, A Few Thoughts on Legal Details

I began reading books and articles about small businesses in my teens, if not earlier. I also have attended classes and made a stab at officially starting a few businesses.

I have done things like registered business names at the county where I was living and started a variety of blogs and so forth. I also do freelance work under my actual name, Doreen Traylor.

Businesses with a "real name" typically do not need to be registered. You can take a check in your name and you are probably good. If you are a sole proprietor, you can put such checks through your personal checking account and it's all good.

If you want a "fictitious business name," that has to be registered in order to set up a business account and take checks.

A "real name" is stuff like my actual name, Doreen Traylor. It would also be fine to call my business "Traylor and Sons" (because I have two sons) and take checks in the name of Doreen Traylor.

A fictitious business would be something like Lady Godiva Construction Company. It's just something you made up and named your business, and now you need to register it and set up a business bank account or you can't get paid.

Things get murky in the Wild West of the Internet. A lot of things that happen online aren't directly covered by law currently, though new laws are being made all the time.

Some things to keep in mind when naming your business:
  • Don't step on the toes of an existing business, like Disney. Don't name yourself after them.
  • Don't stress too much about picking a name. It can be changed later. This happens pretty frequently, even for big businesses.
  • Check your local laws to see if you need to register it in your city, county or country.
  • Try to pick a name with real words that are easy to say and that don't confuse the listener as to what you meant. (Think about how there, their and they're all sound alike.)
  • Do a quick google and see if the name could be mistaken for a bad word or something sexual. Keep in mind that sexual innuendo isn't always a bad thing and is used a lot in marketing campaings. So it's not as simple as "just don't ever use those kinds of words."
  • It's always good if you can get a domain name or social media account that matches the name, though people have gotten used to domain names that aren't a direct match. So that's not a deal breaker.
  • If your business is entirely online and involves working through a service, drop shipping or similar, you may not need to worry about some of these details. Though if you get very successful and the business grows and expands, this may change at some point.

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